Make the Most of Your Expat Experience

October 3rd, 2013

Sampling everything as an expatAs an expat who has lived in Dubai for the past twelve years, I was recently asked to serve on a panel addressing the challenges for expat families living in the Middle East.

Because my family’s overseas move took place so long ago, I could only vaguely remember how I coped with the transition. I do remember being quite homesick and a bit depressed in the beginning. However, the friends I made and the groups I joined helped me survive and eventually thrive in my new city.

To help get some more ideas on successful expat living, I polled a group of my friends in Dubai for their top tips. Some of these women have been living as expats for decades; others are in the midst of making the transition for the first time. They offered some insights that hadn’t occurred to me. After I gathered their suggestions, I wished someone had told me these strategies when I first landed in Dubai twelve years ago. 

  •  Stay in the present. Don’t waste your time longing for your past life “back home” or daydreaming about your next posting or next visit home. Instead, cherish and enjoy every moment that you have today—in whatever city or country that may be.
  • Make your new house your home. Take your time choosing a new home. Don’t be rushed. When you move in, unpack quickly. Decorate and personalize your home as though you will live there forever. Expats who don’t take time to set up their new dwelling often feel stuck in limbo.
  • Meet people and make friends as soon as possible. I always tell newcomers to join a group and make connections right away. Don’t wait until you are “settled” to start making friends. You can begin to make contacts with expat groups even before you arrive. It’s not enough just to make friends with people of the same nationality or from your workplace. Branch out! Find people with common interests, be it bicycling, charity, art or photography. Join a faith community, meet your neighbors or become a volunteer.
  • Create a community for yourself. One challenge of expat life is leaving our family and friends behind. New expats often move to a foreign city without knowing a soul. It takes time, but it’s important to create a community—new friends to share holidays with or to turn to during difficult times. And because our fellow expats eventually move away, we need to keep adding to our circle.
  • Stay positive. Make your overseas move with the attitude that you will succeed. Focus on the positive and the exciting aspects of your new place of residence, not just on what is missing. Hang out with people who embrace the expat experience. Avoid those who just want to complain or criticize the new place.
  • Dive deeply into the new culture. I have heard expats complain that Dubai has “no culture.” I think these people expect the local culture to be served up to them on a gold platter. It requires more effort than that—a lot more. In Dubai, start by taking a tour of a mosque or join in a cultural breakfast. Take a course in learning Arabic or take an Arabian food tour. Read books about your new country. Explore places that make you a little uncomfortable—be it a hole-in-the-wall eatery, a fruit and vegetable souk or a neighborhood where no one looks like you.
  • Experience as much as possible. Be open to what is new. Read guides and local magazines to find out what to see and do in your new city. Don’t wait until you have houseguests or you are leaving to start exploring. The most exciting and memorable experiences are outside your comfort zone.
  • At work, be flexible and willing to adapt. Avoid continually comparing your new workplace with your last. Bring lots of patience and be open to new ways. Those who thrive in an international work setting are those who tolerate differences and avoid stereotyping based on nationality.
  • Learn how to stay safe. As soon as you arrive, find out the emergency phone numbers for your new city. Figure out how to get to the clinic and emergency room. In addition to a GPS, get a street atlas to help you get oriented. Learn how to keep yourself, your home and your family safe in this new setting. Not sure how to find out those things? That’s what all those new friends are for.
  • Always remember you are a guest. Read up on the local culture, know what is expected of you, and act accordingly. Dress and behave respectfully.
  • Take advantage of travel opportunities. The Middle East is truly at the crossroads. It’s possible to do short trips in all directions and experience endless destinations and cultures. Even if you can only scrape together one trip per year, you can see much of the world this way.
  • Keep in touch with the best of “Back Home.” Expat life is exciting and challenging because of all the unexpected lifestyle changes. Stay grounded with some carefully selected traditions and customs from your home country. For example, at my house, no matter how busy we are, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday each year with a traditional meal.
  • Live as though you’ll be here forever—but also be ready to pick up and go. Oh, the paradox of expat living. Create a life for yourself in this new place, but live each day, week, month, year in your expat home as if it were your last—because it could be. This way, you’ll have no regrets.
  1. October 3rd, 2013 at 11:20 | #1

    Great post Holly! I especially agree with making your house your home, no matter how long you’re staying. So so important. My husband argued with me about many of the things I wanted to do to set things up, but in the end I won and we’re all much happier.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 3rd, 2013 at 11:50 | #2

      Thank you so much for reading, Amanda, and sharing your own expat experience. I’m looking forward to hearing about all your adventures and your recent move to Morocco. So exciting!!!

  2. Sue Baldridge
    October 3rd, 2013 at 11:56 | #3

    These are great tips for settling in to a new ex-pat assignment anywhere in the world. I agree with Amanda that the best tip is probably #2 – decorate your home and settle in! Having “my things” around me make a house MY home. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the absolute first order of business is to hang your paintings and other wall decor. Somehow, having those things between you and the walls help prevent the walls from closing in on you, most especially if you can paint the walls in a warm tone beforehand! I hope all the new ladies who are coming to Dubai and joining the Organization of American Women will find your blog, Holly, and take advantage of this information! Great article.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 3rd, 2013 at 12:02 | #4

      Thank you, Sue, for reading & for your kind words…. I agree, so important to make your house your home. Those I know who skip over this step tend to feel stuck in limbo and never at home. Painting is a great idea, too! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  3. Azza
    October 3rd, 2013 at 12:34 | #5

    I really love your blog Holly, so this time I thought to leave a comment. It has such positive and vibrant energy! I do agree with all the tips of expact life. The most important one for me is looking at this expat life as a great opportunity to learn so much about other cultures and making friends from all over the world. In the end I learnd that people have more in common than they have differences. I think ‘home’ should be the place where you are with your loved ones and where you feel safe and prosper.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 14th, 2013 at 10:09 | #6

      Azza, Thank you so much for reading & for your lovely comment. I love your insights into Expat life. All the best to you & your family.

  4. @rupertbu
    October 3rd, 2013 at 13:25 | #7

    Now that we are all online, well the readers of blogs definitely are, I would recommend all expats install a translation app, Google’s works reasonably, and then you can read items written in the language of your new location. Local newspapers do not necessarily reflect Expat newspaper output!

    Up here in Ukraine, I have had a few conversations with folks, when face to face, via their smartphone translator. Do take the translated output with a pinch of salt 😉

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 14th, 2013 at 10:07 | #8

      Google translator = great tip. Sounds like you are having some new expat/travel adventures. 🙂

  5. Jeannie Neely
    October 3rd, 2013 at 18:06 | #9

    Lovely warm advice Holly! The Writer’s Group and finding friends and activities made all the difference for me, and brought home the value of joining a big group to find friends. Also, reading books to understand the history of your expat experience enhances one’s understanding, tolerance of the “different”, admiration, and curiosity.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 14th, 2013 at 10:07 | #10

      HI Jeannie, I’m so glad you’re Dubai expat experience turned out to be a good one. I miss you! Enjoy Seattle for me. 🙂

  6. Sharon
    October 3rd, 2013 at 19:35 | #11

    This was fantastic! Thanks so much Holly is was exactly what I needed! Xx

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 14th, 2013 at 10:06 | #12

      Hi Sharon, it was great seeing you in Washington State. Wishing you all the best for your new expat adventures!!! Take care.

  7. Lainey
    October 4th, 2013 at 03:22 | #13

    Another great post that is spot on.
    Thank you! Love the pic too!

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 14th, 2013 at 10:05 | #14

      Thank you for reading, Lainey. You are awesome. 🙂

  8. Francine Soltani
    November 15th, 2013 at 23:15 | #15

    Great practical advice, Holly. We are about to move as you know, and at the moment living on a small island just doesn’t sound too appealing to me. Hossein wasn’t fond of it when he was there, and his attitude is rubbing off on me. I’ll take your advice and try to make the most of it. As we know so well, it won’t be permanent.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      November 16th, 2013 at 09:07 | #16

      Thanks for stopping by, Francine. Wishing you all the best on your next move. Keep me posted 🙂

  9. Sarah
    December 9th, 2013 at 20:07 | #17

    I am considering moving to Dubai, on my own, to start a new life for myself.
    I’m 40, single, have no close family. No reason for me to stay in cold, wet and boring Great Britain. I’ve always felt at home in the middle east.
    Really enjoyed reading the article above, lots of great advice and input by everyone.

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      December 15th, 2013 at 21:19 | #18

      Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for the comment. I wish you all the best with your move to Dubai or wherever you land!

  10. August 16th, 2014 at 12:49 | #19

    Wonderful article. Very helpful information for expats.
    Thanks! for sharing your living experience in Dubai.
    Stay happy and rejoiced.

    Sally Sen

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      October 8th, 2014 at 15:23 | #20

      Dear Sally Sen,
      Thanks so much for reading & commenting. All the best to you with your life in Dubai!

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